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"Descent of Angels"

A story by Charles Baxter

Based on a painting by John La Farge

(Snow Field, Morning, Roxbury, 1864)

 

 

Almost every afternoon during the winter of 1870, around two o'clock, the young mother bundled up her baby in his snowsuit and went out to sit on the bench in the backyard. She always cleared the bench of the new snow with her gloved free hand; then she sat down with the baby perched on her knee. There, she gazed at the snow field to the west. The woods started three quarters of a mile back in the distance, and after tilting her head to check on the boy, Thomas, she would turn back to face the trees, the horizon tilted now, higher on the right side than on the left, as if everything in her field of vision had an inclination to slide toward the south.

She and her husband had been married for only nineteen months, and she was still so in love with him that she measured the shadows on the ground to gauge the amount of time until twilight and his return. She considered herself a rather plain woman, though with certain good features, including a pleas- ant sense of humor and pretty hands. Her physical urgency for her husband had caught her a bit by surprise. Even with the constant chores and the baby's requirements, she would wait for her husband to return and for the moment when her flesh would press against his. He was a country doctor beginning practice, tall and sandy-haired, with a light mustache, who was pleased and surprised by his wife's ardor and who on most nights was eager to return it.

She liked to gaze at the four small evergreens just in front of her and to think of them as a family, surviving somehow in the midst of nothing special, just a blank full gaze of whiteness. The largest tree, the one on the left, would be her husband, Samuel. Sometimes, however, she thought of herself as that tree, as Samuel, as the strongest one, the one who stayed and stayed and stayed. The tree next to it was herself, usually, and the two seedlings next to that were their two children, the one they had already had, Thomas, and the second one they would have some day, Louisa.

Thomas stirred in her lap and reached up a mittened hand to her, as if he knew that hidden in her coat and sweater and shirt and undergarments there was still a breast, and he could nurse there. He was five months old and was a strong observant child, full of lusty good cheer and cries and curiosity. He occupied her days, and, even as she scrubbed the floor, she had developed the habit of speaking to him as she would to a companion, telling him all her secrets, even a few intimate ones that she guessed a child should not hear.

Gazing at the woods, she liked to imagine someone emerging from the trees and crossing the snow field to rescue her. But no: she didn't need rescuing: her husband would return as he always did, and she was here, and she was fine, more or less.

Because of a childhood accident, she was radically color-blind. When people spoke of a thing's being “blue,” or “red,” she had only the dimmest idea of what they meant. To her, the scenes of the world came to her with all the hues silent and muted. This sky, for example, was gray, and the clouds above it were gray, and the snow field, of course, was white discolored by brown. She could still sometimes see brown. She knew her son's eyes were blue because people had told her so. It was her sole heartbreak not to see the color of his eyes.

From behind her, behind the house, she heard a bird, a crow, followed, very distantly, by the barking of a dog.

“There they are,” she said. “The animals. Do you hear them?” She kissed Thomas on the forehead to help him hear.

But he was not listening. He was watching the snow field and the sky above it. His gaze was transfixed. He sat utterly still. In this attitude, his body was rigid with attentiveness, in the claim of some distinct spiritous phantom. His eyes opened so wide they seemed baby-shocked. She turned to see what saw.

Whatever it was, it was descending. From the ash trails of lethargic clouds, countless human forms, cloaked only in radiance, sung their way silently through the air toward her then stopped as if in midair, to the left of the family of evergreens, hovering there in beatitude. Male and female, and inexplicitly beautiful in their forms, giving back and forth in mystery their joy and sanctity, they provoked in her a shock of unpleasant peacefulness. She had not known her loneliness could give rise to this. Robed in light, and held beneath the light, they were standing together, not earthly, their feelings larger than they were. She was washed in their light. She clutched her son, who had seen them first. They were not as they had been described in Scripture. Against the blankness of the snow field they asserted their presence to her. Then they returned to their realm, and she was left with her baby, and the snow field with its woods and gray light, and the perpetuity of the cold hillside.

They had been here, she judged, for ten seconds.

*

How many of us have seen a thing about which we could never speak? An event so large and private and wondrous, so beyond description, and so secret, that even to begin to explain it would cast the world's doubt on us, and so spoil it? She was a simple American woman, a young mother who had seen what could not be sanely described. She gathered up her son to her shoulder and carried him inside. She was weeping with the joy and secrecy of it. Alone with her child in her house, she fell to her knees and removed his snowsuit; she did not know how to pray, so she undressed him and herself and put him to her breast.

When her husband came home that evening, she did not speak of it. Through the dinner and his talk, she was hushed. She cast over herself an invisible veil. She could not remove from her mind the image of the snow field, the family of evergreens, the tilted horizon, and the spirits in the emptiness. That night, with the baby sleeping, she asked her husband to undress with the lights still burning. He was puzzled but did as she asked; then she disrobed herself. She saw how moved he was by her beauty. She saw his lineaments of action and desire, and she felt herself begin to weep again, wondering how long her husband and she herself would survive her vision. She pressed her color-blind eyes against his chest and wiped her tears on his skin.

_____________

From Transforming Vision: Writers on Art, selected and introduced by Edward Hirsch. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1994). http://www.artic.edu/aic/books/subtransforming.html

 

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